Religion as Culture, in a Globalized World

It should be clear to you that religion is deeply embedded in culture. Religion, as part of culture, are often the circumstances that we are born with–the set of behaviors, customs, values ingrained into us by the time we are 12 years old. Religion influences the way we not only understand the purpose of life, but also how we handle everyday things like time, work, and money.

It’s no surprise to researchers like Milton Bennett that we live in a world where cultures too often clash violently. We as human beings are so immersed in our own ways that we fail to see the entirety of what makes us who we are; we only see the tip of the iceberg when most of the submerged material is crashing into each other underneath.

Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity challenges us to go beyond the American ideal of “tolerance” and “diversity.” It challenges us to be intercultural wizards, able to fully grasp, understand, and adapt to religious differences. Applied to religion, the model seems to have the following stages:

Stage 1: Denial

This stage is marked by the belief that all people are like me. In this world, people may or may not be Christian (for example), but they certainly see the world in the same framework. They value the same things as I do.

Stage 2: Defense

This stage is a Us vs. Them setup; it is marked by the belief that while there are others that don’t believe as I do, their religion or belief system must automatically be wrong or inferior. It is upon us, therefore, to convert them or to “pray for them”. Taken to the extreme, people of other religions may be seen as less than human.

Stage 3: Minimization

There are important religious differences, but that’s okay as long as they are not discussed in public. In this stage, all human beings are basically the same: we all have the same basic necessities like food, drink, shelter, and love. Outside of these core principles, religion should not matter.

Stage 4: Tolerance

Individuals at this stage are adequately educated to understand religious differences and why they matter. They are able to see and understand others’ point of view to a limited extent, but will generally not like or agree with others.

Stage 5: Adaptation

Individuals at this stage are able to take their knowledge and experiences of different religions and shift their own worldviews to acknowledge the overwhelming influence of religious culture. Often, people wind up adopting beliefs and values that are not particular to any religion, and they are able to navigate different cultures easily.

So the inspirational challenge to you is this: Where are you on this scale, and how can we be good citizens in this globalized world?


Posted on August 7, 2011, in Humanism, Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks for sharing this.

    Bennett’s scale gives us a good way of thinking about culture and religion in our increasingly interconnected world. But I wonder if it’s too easy with ideology and religious politics to ignore or pooh-pooh the model as being a kind of watered-down variety of McWorld Culture when it is viewed in light of many of these traditional, competing world religions and philosophies.

    It strikes me that while the scale is very good, and an excellent way of considering and/or analyzing religious and cultural systems in question … because it is a contemporary model, it’s necessarily going to be seen as being suspect. Some will charge it’s being relativistic; others will say it will never offer anything but glossed-over values since the purpose of ‘globalizing’ Culture is really to neuter and devalue it.

    The thing is -> I don’t agree with that position, but I can see how people might make it. They’re confusing, I think, cultural integration on a global scale with the idea of traditional cultures being deracinated in the face of dumbed-down contemporary values.

    But to my mind, the charge is unfounded. It’s not about cultures being melted away with the onset of globalization as much as it that the best in human values and societies is being shared and built upon in common on a world scale.

    Therefore, Bennett’s quite correct in viewing “Adaptation” and “Integration of Difference” as being the top of this ladder (so to speak) or the final stage in this process of cultural development. But it’s not like this is a completely “new” thing or without precedent in human history. It’s been happening from the beginning, and is really the gist of all human attempts at culture, philosophy, (and even religion) from the dawn of civilization.

    … How do we come together as people? How do we build a better world? … These questions drive at the heart of human value … shaped in fact by where we are in the world and what we aspire to be in life. We see our smallness in the universe, reflect on the ‘noumenous’ aspects of reality as Christopher Hitchens puts it, and so we naturally strive to come to terms with these concepts and frame our societies as such through our experiences in life.

    That’s what “culture” is, even as in religion, we end up having to work it out “in fear and trembling.” But the goal of what we’re striving for, this finish-line, isn’t anything novel for the Twenty-First Century (or even the Twentieth for that matter). It’s what we’ve been always working towards.

    That’s where our real inspiration lies in life … not in abandoning values or cultural forms, but in bringing them together, working them out as institutions, and using them to build new culture … culture that more adequately meets our needs as human beings.

    Anyway, that’s the ideal … We never quite get there. But, that’s what comes from us being “stone-agers in the fast lane” (as it was once to put to me).

    Great post, again. Keep up the good work!

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